Friday, April 10, 2015

the writing life: notes on the mfa experience

On this weekend of AWP happening up north, the mothership of academic poetry, it somehow feels fitting to be talking about MFA programs and the benefits and drawbacks.  When I enrolled in the fall of 2003 in Columbia's inaugural year of the Poetry-MFA, there were two defining factors.  A)  I already worked for the college library and was on campus all the time anyway, so why not? and B)  I got a 6 for the price of 3 credit hour deal as part of my employment benefits.  By then I already had an MA in Literature I'd gotten fresh out of undergrad when I was still intending to teach, so prior to that, I hadn't even really considered an additional grad degree as an option until they announced they would be starting one the next fall.  I quickly applied in an unusual flurry of ambition, pulled together recommendations letters from an editor I'd worked with and one of my MA faculty members, and somehow got a spot in the first class.

At that point, I had already been submitting and publishing pretty widely, had already been editing  wicked alice for  a couple years, had already had landed a chapbook acceptance from a small, local feminist press. Logistical reasons above aside, there were other, murkier, factors at play--a desire to gain some perceived professional credibility as an artist that an MFA provides, a chance to actually interact with other writers (I was beginning to do this a bit locally, but I could count on one hand the poets I actually knew in real life), a chance to test the waters and get some feedback before the poems went out in submission.That fall, I felt a little out of my element since most the of the other students were more at the beginnings of their careers or writing pursuits. (this actually changed as more students came into the program with a bit more experience under their belts.)  One one hand I loved that the courses, particularly the craft seminars pushed my work in different ways and generated projects that otherwise might not have happened without them--the Cornell project, errrata, my Resurrection Mary series. And  I had some really great experiences with some the visiting faculty in those classes--most notably Karen Volkman and Stephanie Strickland.

On the other hand, the workshops were sort of frustrating. I'd been writing on my own for long enough that I had some definite ideas on what worked and what didn't and listening to other people, most of whom I did not share a similar aesthetic in any way, seemed counterproductive.  I was also older, on the verge of 30, and not much younger than my instructors, so I never really had any yoda-like mentor-me inclinations.  Those first couple of semesters, I wasn't sure we could all agree on what constituted a successful poem, let alone give each other advice on how to construct one.  I've also never been much for revision, at least on the draft level, most of the revision happening as the poem was written, so by the time I showed it to anyone, outside of some tweaks in tenses or rhythm, it was pretty much done.  The first couple of years were rough. I nearly quit several times--out of boredom or apathy or anger. Luckily, the longer I stayed in the program (I was doing it part-time, so four years) the more poets came in with similar aesthetics and whose work I found interesting, the more people filtered in who were able to offer useful input (well, something beyond "Please write a different poem." or" This is too easy.")

I was working full-time, 40 hours a week and just starting dgp, so there were probably many more instances of the desire to flee. but eventually I actually settled in to the routine of balancing classes and work and the press.  Once I'd met the workshop requirements, I even sort of started to love my lit and craft seminars.(yes even the Chaucer one I nearly slept through due to a battle with mono.)   I was producing a lot of work during those 4 years , the tail end of the fever almanac, (which was published my final year in the program) the entirety of in the bird museum and, of course, girl show, which was my thesis manuscript.  I'm convinced that while I may have written one book in that time without being in a program, I probably wouldn't have written two and a half (and actually a few pieces that wound up in major characters in minor films now that I think about it)

I also sometimes feel like the program itself was still finding its feet, and while I felt lucky that CC in general seemed to be a department that leaned toward innovative work as a whole (and thus broadened my reading in ways that wouldn't have happened as much on my own) it was also still very much sodden with status quo attitudes re: po-biz in general, ie. poo-poo-ing indie startups and self-publishing. worshipping at the same old gods & institutions, passing off occasionally moribound advice as mentoring--publish here, not here.This contest, not that one.  People talk about the networking prospects of grad study, and while I can't say I felt like doors were opening that I couldn't just open myself, I did meet a lot of cool people who went on to do really cool things later , people who I like the idea of having studied elbow to elbow with at one time. (Also, I managed to wrangle a number of the ladies into letting me publish their work through

The strangest phenomenon was actually what happened AFTER I graduated. Granted I was moving full-steam on the press/shop and moving into the studio space and most my creative efforts were pointed in that direction, but there were about 3 years where I was writing very little.  Things were happening in those years on the surface-- my second book coming out, finding a new publisher for #3 after Ghost Road collapsed,  collaborative projects, lots of readings, but only a few new poems generated & submitted, only a couple publications. It was almost like I couldn't get the strange sensation of all those eyes looking over my shoulder as I wrote. All those fingers in my poems.  The freedom was suddenly exhilarating and terrifying. I anxiously read articles that talked about post-MFA lags, about the overwhelming number of people who graduate and move completely away from writing altogether.  I fretted.  I published other people's books and made lots of art and crafty things, but the words were hard to find.   When people asked me how the writing was going, I got even more anxious and self-conscious about it.   I  would occasionally get something down (and many of these loose pieces are in the new book), but I was sort of treading water in the poem-world.  For a while I was working sort of half-heartedly on what became beautiful, sinister, but couldn't finish it.  Funnily enough, it took the James Franco pieces (which I kept telling myself were completely a lark and not even "poetry") to get things really flowing again...

{all this NAPOWRIMO month I will be blogging about poetry-related things --inspiration, publication, other verse-related randomness-- so stay tuned for more...}

1 comment:

Supervillainess said...

A great account, Kristy, and honest - I wish more people would write about this and so people would go into MFA programs with reasonable expectations. I was also 30 (well, 31) when I entered the first year of a new MFA program, although I was coming from being a sort of tech manager from the corporate world, and therefore not at all meek-student-y (which I'm sure was fun for my mentors - why is this girl fighting us over everything again?) I also had an MA when I went in. Did it give me everything I was hoping for? No. But it did give me a sense of a bigger community, which was nice, and it did allow me to teach (as an adjunct) which was good experience. I do also think that taking a semester off in the middle was really helpful - I was super sick at that time, but it's also when Becoming the Villainess got taken, and it came out when I came back to school, and so that really pushed me to write my next book, I think.